The prize is awarded in Israel by the Wolf Foundation, founded by Ricardo Wolf, a German-born inventor and former Cuban ambassador to Israel. It is awarded in six fields: Agriculture, Chemistry, Mathematics, Medicine, Physics, and an Arts prize that rotates between architecture, music, painting, and sculpture. Each prize consists of a diploma and US$100,000. The prize is described by the Foundation as being "awarded annually", but is not in fact awarded every year: only six prizes were awarded between 2000–2010 in most fields, and four in Physics only.
The Wolf Prizes in Physics and Chemistry are often considered the most prestigious awards in those fields after the Nobel Prize. The prize in physics has gained a reputation for identifying future winners of the Nobel Prize – from the 26 prizes awarded between 1978 and 2010, fourteen winners have gone on to win the Nobel Prize, five of those in the following year.
In medicine, the prize is probably the third most prestigious, after the Nobel Prize and the Lasker Award. Until the establishment of the Abel Prize, the Wolf Prize was probably the closest equivalent of a "Nobel Prize in Mathematics", since the more prestigious Fields Medal was only awarded every four years to mathematicians under forty years old. The Prize in Agriculture has likewise been equated to a "Nobel Prize in Agriculture".